When it comes to the Big Ten vs. SEC debate, ignorance has been the rule for quite some time. Chances are, you’ve heard the tired clichés about the SEC’s “speed” and the Big Ten’s “fat.” The SEC is a great conference. I’m not here to suggest it isn’t. In fact it’s possible that the SEC is a better football conference than the Big Ten. The key word there is “possible.” SEC fans—and media types who couldn’t differentiate between hyperbole and reality if they were food items in a buffet line—would have you believe that the Big Ten is the pathetic, old, curmudgeon of college football. I even had a reader comment a few weeks back that Vanderbilt would quickly move into the top three of the Big Ten if it joined the conference. Yes, the same Vanderbilt that recently lost to Duke and Army, has gone 17-104 in the SEC since 1995, and has had just one winning season since 1983. If you have an SEC friend, then you’ve no doubt heard a version of this argument.
The backlash against the Big Ten (and the subsequent “lovefest” for the SEC) is the result of two heavily inflated factors: 1) In the last three years, Ohio State has lost ugly twice to SEC teams in the BCS National Championship Game and 2) The Big Ten also managed a measly 1-6 bowl record in 2008-09 while the SEC went 6-2. In my opinion, those factors have painted the Big Ten in a much darker shade of irrelevance than the rather tame criticisms that existed earlier in the decade. Now, more than ever, the Big Ten is viewed as a waning power.
That would be sad if it were true. Fortunately, it’s not. The numbers simply don’t back up those beliefs. Part of the perception problem that the Big Ten faces is that the media belabors the idea of its inferiority when it struggles but makes no mention of its superiority when it excels. For example, you couldn’t avoid “Big Ten is slow” articles if you tried to after last year’s miserable bowl effort. After a very successful—and arguably the most successful—bowl effort this year, we’ve hardly seen a barrage of “Big Ten is back” sentiments. If any conference deserves to be hyped following the bowl season, it is the Big Ten. In this bowl season alone, the Big Ten posted four victories over teams ranked in the top 15 of the BCS. That’s quite a feat considering most conferences don’t even play four teams ranked in the top 15 of the BCS in a single postseason. In fact, the accomplishment is so rare that it has only happened one other time in the BCS era. The “slow” Big Ten also did it in 1998. That’s right, the mighty SEC has never beaten four top 15 BCS teams in one bowl season. The Big Ten has done it twice, ten years apart. The Big Ten was strong when the BCS was originally formed, and it is strong today which bolsters the concept of cyclicality when it comes to conference strength. The same anti-Big Ten sentiments exists in college basketball where the Big Ten was the #1 conference according to the RPI in 1999, 2006, and barely missed out in 2009, yet faced a barrage of criticism and claims of irrelevance in the years between.
I was a bit surprised to discover that the Big Ten is the only conference to beat four top 15 BCS teams in one bowl season. It got me wondering how the Big Ten has fared against the SEC in that measure since the BCS began in 1998 (I used top 15—and not top 25—because the BCS standings only included the top 15 teams through2002). If the SEC has truly been the superior conference, it should have more such victories than the Big Ten. In fact, if it is far and away the best conference as many have claimed, it should hold a substantial margin over the Big Ten. Since 1998, the SEC has 24 victories over teams rated in the top 15 of the BCS. The Big Ten has 20. That is hardly a decisive edge. It’s no more decisive than, say, the Big Ten’s 21-19 advantage in BCS bids over that time. The SEC’s edge may not be an edge at all when home field advantage is taken into consideration. The SEC plays the vast majority of its bowl games in its own region. The Big Ten’s best team has to travel to Pasadena to play a West Coast team every season (often times it’s playing USC just a few minutes from its home stadium). Its other teams travel to Florida or other “away” locations while SEC teams play in their own backyard. Take this bowl season for example. The Big Ten played all seven of its bowl games outside of the Big Ten region. The SEC played 8 of 10 bowl games inside of its region. Considering the monumental discrepancy in home/away splits in the sport of football, the SEC should be, far and away, the most successful conference. Yet, the Big Ten has nearly matched the SEC in defeating top 15 opponents in the BCS standings.
Despite popular opinion being overwhelmingly in favor of the SEC, the Big Ten has proven that it not only produces as many BCS teams as the SEC, but it also beats teams highly ranked in the BCS standings nearly as often. The 400lb gorilla left to confront is how the Big Ten has fared head to head against the SEC. If the SEC truly is the superior conference, it should be pretty easy to prove using head to head results. Since the BCS started in 1998, the Big Ten and SEC have squared off in bowl games 31 times. If you’ve got money riding on the SEC in this fight, then you’ll be disappointed to know that the Big Ten holds the advantage, 16-15. This is a major blow to the “SEC drinks the Big Ten’s milkshake” argument. Not only does the Big Ten have more victories head to head against the SEC but it has done it while playing in hostile territory virtually every time.
In 30 of the 31 games, the Big Ten has played the SEC in the SEC region. In 0 of the 31 games, the SEC has played the Big Ten in the Big Ten region. Nobody seems to bother mentioning this when constructing hit-jobs on the Big Ten. Not only were 30 of the 31 games in the SEC region but seven of the games featured an SEC team playing in its own state. I wonder what would happen to Florida, Georgia, or Alabama if it had to play in Columbus, Iowa City, or Happy Valley in January. We may have gotten a glimpse during the bowl season when unseasonably low temperatures in the south corresponded with one of the Big Ten’s most successful bowl seasons ever. The Big Ten doesn’t just have to play de facto road games in most of its bowl contests, it must do so with players recruited specifically to play in the cold and wet autumns of the Midwest. The fact that the Big Ten has still managed a winning record despite the SEC playing in its backyard speaks volumes about the strength of the conference.
I don’t know who’s most responsible for the “SEC superiority” myths. There are a lot of culpable parties from ESPN and its media brethren to SEC and even Big Ten fans who unwittingly buy the pro-SEC/anti T Big Ten bags of doughnuts. The SEC has certainly scored a publicity boon with its recent National Championships but I’m pretty sure that “best conference” and “best team” mean two different things. The fact that the SEC has won the last four National Championships is a fine accomplishment. However, conference strength has little to do with who wins the National Championship. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was actually an inverse relationship between the two. Nebraska won three National Championships in the 90s playing out of a mediocre conference. USC won two in the 2000s doing the same. The SEC nearly got two teams into the National Championship Game this year because of its relatively weak effort as a conference while Texas waltzed into this year’s BCS Championship Game by hammering one of the weakest Big XII conferences in recent memory.
The Big Ten has more than held its own despite a systematic bias against the conference. The SEC, on the other hand, due to the location of most bowl games, has a tremendous advantage over not just the Big Ten but every conference. Of course, none of what I wrote will change anything. As long as it remains easier to perpetuate stereotypes—and it will always be easier to perpetuate stereotypes—the “fast” SEC will always be better than the “slow” Big Ten.